New Zealand Prepares to Bury Mosque Victims as Death Toll Hits 50

March 17, 2019 Updated: March 17, 2019

CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand—A steady stream of mourners paid tribute on March 17 at a makeshift memorial to the 50 people slain by a gunman at two mosques in Christchurch, while dozens stood by to bury the dead when authorities finally release the victims’ bodies.

Hundreds of flowers were piled up amid candles, balloons and notes of grief and love outside the Al Noor mosque. As a light rain fell, people clutched each other and wept quietly.

“We wish we knew your name to write upon your heart. We wish we knew your favorite song, what makes you smile, what makes you cry,” read one of the tributes, which contained cut-out paper hearts under a nearby tree. “We made a heart for you. 50 hearts for 50 lives.”

Flowers memorial Christchurch mosque attack
Flowers and signs laid at a memorial for victims of the Christchurch mosque attacks outside Masjid Al Noor in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 17, 2019. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Supporters arrived from across the country to help with the burials in Christchurch and authorities sent in backhoes to dig graves at a site that was newly fenced off and blocked from view with white netting.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said authorities hoped to release all the bodies by Wednesday, and Police Commissioner Mike Bush said authorities were working with pathologists and coroners to complete the task as soon as they could.

“We have to be absolutely clear on the cause of death and confirm their identity before that can happen,” Bush added. “But we are so aware of the cultural and religious needs. So we are doing that as quickly and as sensitively as possible.”

Mourner outside hospital
A mourner pauses at a makeshift memorial outside Christchurch hospital in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019, one day after the mass shootings at two mosques in the city. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Police said they had released a preliminary list of the victims to families, which has helped give closure to some who were waiting for any news.

The suspect in the shootings, 28-year-old self-described “eco-fascist” Brenton Harrison Tarrant, appeared in court Saturday amid strict security, shackled and wearing all-white prison garb, and showed no emotion when the judge read one murder charge and said more would likely follow.

Brenton Tarrant, charged for murder in relation to the mosque attacks, is lead into the dock for his appearance
Brenton Tarrant, charged for murder in relation to the mosque attacks, is lead into the dock for his appearance in the Christchurch District Court, New Zealand, on March 16, 2019. (Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald/Pool via Reuters)

Tarrant had posted a jumbled 74-page anti-immigrant manifesto online before the attacks and apparently used a helmet-mounted camera to broadcast live video of the slaughter.

Ardern said the gunman had sent the manifesto to her office email about nine minutes before the attacks, although she hadn’t gotten the email directly herself. She said her office was one of about 30 recipients and had forwarded the email to parliamentary security within a couple of minutes of receiving it.

Brenton Tarrant
Brenton Tarrant, one of the suspected shooters in the New Zealand mosque shootings, allegedly streamed the attack live on Facebook on March 15, 2019. (Screenshot)

Bush said at a news conference that another body had been found at Al Noor mosque as they finished removing the victims, bringing the number of people killed there to 42. Another seven people were killed at Linwood mosque and one more person died later at Christchurch Hospital.

Thirty-four wounded remained at the hospital, where officials said 12 were in critical condition. A 4-year-old girl at a children’s hospital in Auckland was also listed as critical.

Dozens gathered at a center set up for victims, families, and friends across the road from the hospital, where many had flown in from around New Zealand to offer support.

Abdul Hakim, 56, of Auckland, was among many who had flown in to help.

“As soon as people die, we must bury them as soon as possible,” Hakim said. “We are all here to help them in washing the body, putting them in the grave.”

Javed Dadabhai, who flew from Auckland after learning about the death of his 35-year-old cousin, Junaid Mortara, said the community was being patient.

“The family understands that it’s a crime scene. It’s going to be a criminal charge against the guy who’s done this, so they need to be pretty thorough,” he said.

Still, it was hard, he said, because the grieving process wouldn’t really begin until he could bury his cousin.

People across the country were still trying to come to terms with the massacre that Ardern described as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

police officer places flowers at the entrance of Masjid Al Noor mosque
A police officer places flowers at the entrance of Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 17, 2019. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

The gunman livestreamed 17 minutes of the rampage at the Al Noor mosque, where he sprayed worshippers with bullets. Facebook, Twitter and Google scrambled to take down the video, which was widely available on social media for hours after the bloodbath.

The second attack took place at the Linwood mosque about 5 kilometers (3 miles) away.

Before Friday’s attack, New Zealand’s deadliest shooting in modern history took place in 1990 in the small town of Aramoana, where a gunman killed 13 people following a dispute with a neighbor.

By Nick Perry and Juliet Williams

RECOMMENDED